Sunday, December 8, 2013

Attitudes towards minorities from a historical perspective

Attitudes towards confessional and sexual minorities in the discourse of the media in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland from a historical perspective 

The questions this project asks are: how do media participate in creating public perception of sexual and religious minorities in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland? What discursive strategies are used to render negative attitudes in a “politically correct” way, and how is homophobia/xenophobia defended and inequality argued for in the public sphere? How does the changing economic, political, cultural context – especially instability, lack of security, atmosphere of crisis and deterioration detected in Latvia and Poland in recent years – influence these attitudes? And does the development of media technologies have any effect on them?
How we perceive, describe and approach others, how we define the border between “us” and “them”, tells us a lot about ourselves. Assuming a historical perspective allows us to see whether this border between our in-group and different out-groups has shifted, how far, and in which direction. Examining the political, social and economic contexts of these shifts may explain what it is that makes us open or suspicious, tolerant or intolerant, inclusive or exclusive.

Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have been selected for this project due to their history of belonging to the Eastern Bloc. An important part of the project is the historical context of transition, its social and cultural aspects. In official discourses of the Soviet Union and socialist Poland, both sexuality and religion were non-existent taboos. In the unofficial, dissident culture, especially in the 1970s, spirituality associated with any religion and unrestricted sensuality were promoted among the youth as tokens of personal freedom and resistance (Mikailienė 2011). After the fall of the Soviet Union, all three countries highlighted the return to traditional values as an element of the process of rebuilding their national identities. As a result, the situation has been reversed – in Poland, for example, Catholicism is now part of official culture while atheism belongs to alternative culture.

Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are thus revisiting narratives of a glorious past in order to "heal" their national identities (see e.g. Lindqvist (ed.) 2003). But they are also looking into the future - they want to be modern, they want to be perceived as modern; they strive to participate in the global culture. These two processes are characteristic of transitional societies and constitute what we may call a normative-value dissonance (Savicka 2004, Lazić & Cvejić 2012). To illustrate, Latvia is a country where marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman in the Constitution, and where the Parliament has recently discussed legislation on transsexualism that, if passed, would be the most liberal in Europe. Poland is able to accommodate both the right-wing, xenophobic All-Poland Youth movement (Sidorenko 2008) and the voters who have elected a homosexual person (Robert Biedroń) and a transsexual person (Anna Grodzka) to the current Parliament. And while 92% Lithuanians who declare themselves religious are Roman Catholics, the same people seem to take pride in the fact that Lithuanians were “the last pagans in Europe” and are apparently welcoming to new religious communities and organizations, such as Buddhists, Shri Sathya Say Baba Movement and Baha’ists (Juknevičius 2005: 63). 
It thus seems that it is possible to accommodate both processes in a given culture. Still, there are minorities that fare worse than others, and with regard to this the most important question is why. What makes, for example, sexual minorities so unacceptable? 

Normative-value dissonance is an uncomfortable state (recall cognitive dissonance between inconsistent attitudes and behaviour that causes enough discomfort to bring about attitude change). Processes of social and cultural change cause anxiety, "fear of modernity" (Biedroń 2009: 10). People start to look for someone to blame - a scapegoat that may be made responsible for this anxiety (recall Shermer's (2011) agenticity - the pattern of attributing responsibility for events and processes to consciously acting agents). 
This connects to the point I made earlier - that after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, all three countries looked to the nationalism of the past for patterns of statehood. Communism became the definition of evil: anything associated with or resembling communism was automatically rejected. In this context, a link has been noted between homophobia and anticommunism, where homosexuals and communists pose serious threats to the prevailing social and sexual order (Epstein 1994). Similarly, opponents of the European Union compare it to the Soviet Union, thus symbolically stripping it of any legitimacy. ["This link is also made in numerous claims about the existence of a powerful “homosexual lobby” apparently supported by the West", Gruszczynska 2007: 108.] 
But the legacy of the years behind the iron curtain cannot be dismissed. Putniņa, for example, notes how the long tradition of silencing sexuality in the public sphere affects attitudes towards LGBT people today: "Latvians missed the opportunity to debate sexuality in the 1960s. Debates around homosexuality emerged in the virtual absence of a critical discourse tradition dealing with sexuality and gender" (2007: 324). This claim, of course, applies to Lithuania and Poland too.
Czarnecki makes an interesting point when he compares anti-Semitism of pre-war Poland and present-day homophobia (2007). Both Jews and gays have been constructed as a threat to health (carriers of disease), to the family and to the nation. "A heavy importance is placed on the family as the cornerstone of Polish society, and as a symbol of the nation. Any behaviour that is seen as anti-family can also be paramount to treason, or a deliberate attempt to destroy the nation" (Czarnecki 2007: 334). Constructing sexual minorities as a threat to the family/nation is even more salient in Lithuania and Latvia, which are small countries struggling with emigration of young people and low birth rates.

When discussing anti-gay politics in Poland and Latvia, O'Dwyer & Schwartz (2010) note that these countries are characterized by specific configurations of religion, national identity and party system institutionalization. Especially the first two are recurrent themes in most texts about homophobia, particularly in the context of membership in the European Union:  
"In Poland, religion was (and still is) the main source of collective rituals through which the national identity was formed and is sustained in Polish society" (Gruszczynska 2007: 106, quoting Marody & Mandes 2005: 17). Gruszczynska emphasizes that the importance of religion in the construction of national identity was salient during the EU accession process, and that the conservative right perceive Poland’s membership in the EU "as an opportunity to reintroduce Catholic-Christian values to the mostly secular societies of Western Europe, where Poland profiles itself as the new religious-conservative power in the Union (...) the prominence of homophobic attitudes in Poland can be seen as a reflection of national pride and the notion of Poland as an island of “normalcy” in the sea of Western European degeneracy" (2007: 106).
“Incorporation into the wider European entity aroused suspicion and opposition from political trends that saw greater openness to the outside world as a threat to values derived from Poland’s own, apparently specific, past” (Cox & Myant 2008: 2). “[Public discourse] focuses on patriotic values and the promotion of moral education based on Catholic values in a way that presents negative images of foreign influences, cosmopolitan values and cultural diversity, and sees these as challenges to traditional aspects of ‘the Polish way of life’” (p. 5). Bärenreuter writes that “if the discursive construction of Europe is in conflict with the various national understandings of state and nation, it is likely that these European narratives will be rejected” (2005: 196). I would claim that this is exactly what is happening in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland with regard to sexual minorities: homosexuality is constructed there as something alien, foreign, something that does not belong to the local culture (to the point of saying that there were no gay people there before), something imposed by the European Union. Thus, the European supranational identity (in which national identities could comfortably be nested) is rejected – rather, Europe is the “background other” against which national identities are constructed (Savukynas 2005).
Party system institutionalization is a theme not often considered, but it definitely plays an important role. "Underinstitutionalization matters because, by lowering the hurdle for new, radical parties to enter parliament, it facilitates the emergence of veto players and, by complicating government formation, maximizes their leverage" (O'Dwyer & Schwartz 2010: 234). In all three countries, parties emerge and disappear, coalitions are unstable, and there is no robust link between parties and voters. In such conditions there are no ideologically driven left- or right-wing parties (those that do exist do not matter in elections). No party is thus ready to take the interests of confessional or sexual minorities on its agenda - it would be political suicide.

I believe that I have discussed enough introductory issues to illustrate how complex and multidimensional this project is going to be. I will try to post updates on its progress regularly.

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